REDUCE STRESS AND MANAGE ANXIETY DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
During this unprecedented time of profound uncertainty, many individuals feel overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. The past few weeks have been highly unpredictable and filled with uncontrollable circumstances related to our occupations, finances and overall well-being. At such times, it is exceedingly important to control what you can control. Listed below are several easy strategies to manage our physical, emotional and cognitive well-being in ways that can minimize worries and decrease anxiety.
Establishing routines can be very beneficial, as they create a sense of familiarity, control and predictability during challenging and uncertain times. Make sure to incorporate activities that emulate your usual routine, whether establishing consistent bed and wake times, meal times, exercise and/or work/classroom routines. Not only will this help structure the flow of each day, but it will also help us set (reasonable) expectations for how time is spent and signal when activities should be initiated and completed.
When routines are disrupted and time is unstructured, it can be tempting to adopt inconsistent sleep schedules (e.g., staying up late and/or sleeping in). However, the ability to effectively manage stress and anxiety is extremely compromised when we are overtired and sleep-deprived. As such, it is important to continue to practice healthy sleep hygiene. Specifically, maintain a consistent bedtime routine, and try to fall asleep and wake up at predictable times. If sleep onset is delayed or sleep disruption occurs due to an overactive brain or excessive worry, utilize relaxation, mindfulness and/or visualization techniques (see below) to “quiet” negative thoughts, encourage relaxation and help induce sleep.
During this time of chronic uncertainty and constant change, it is important to set realistic expectations for one’s self and others (e.g., children, spouse, coworkers). Be gentle on each other and yourself. While this may be a time of considerable productivity for some (e.g., learning a new skill, cleaning out closets, painting a room), for others, the “new reality” of social distancing may bring excessive stress or new caretaking demands (e.g., homeschooling kids while working from home) and it is important to set realistic expectations and avoid the pitfalls of social comparison. What may be reasonable and achievable for one person, may be excessive for another. Setting expectations that are too demanding or inflexible set us up to “fail,” leading to additional feelings of stress, fatigue and feelings of inadequacy at a time when our emotional resources are already overburdened. As such, it is important to step back and re-adjust the “bar” with a focus on prioritizing the most pressing goals for now, which for some, may simply be safety, health and emotionally security.
While it is important to stay abreast of latest news briefings and updates during this pandemic, repeated and non-stop exposure to information about the crisis can be overwhelming, stressful and upsetting and can lead to feelings of vulnerability and excessive fear. Additionally, chronic exposure can be consuming and can interfere with productivity on other important tasks. Determine when and how you will access information about the day’s developments. If you find that exposure to discussions (whether on TV, the newspaper or in social media) is too stressful, designate a “media” person in your family or extended support group who can provide you with daily updates or forward (only) imperative information.
Under conditions of chronic stress, it is natural to experience an increase in fear and irrational, catastrophic thinking. While there are currently many unknowns and much uncertainty about what the future holds, catastrophic thinking can lead to distortions that focus exclusively on “worst case scenarios” or “what if’s” without considering the facts or alternative possibilities. Limit thinking that becomes excessive, exaggerated and hyper-focused on disastrous outcomes. Utilize thought stopping and thought replacement techniques (see below) to short-circuit chronic worry and extreme rumination. Becoming mired in an endless “worry loop” about potential future challenges or negative outcomes has no upside and can disrupt concentration and productivity, and heighten one’s sense of anxiety and foreboding, thus taxing emotional resources needed to deal with “real” daily demands.
It can sometimes be difficult to recognize catastrophic thinking as irrational, as our fears can seem realistic when our bodies and brains are over-aroused and hypersensitive. Therefore, it can be helpful to share anxiety-provoking concerns with a trusted person or professional to explore whether such thoughts are realistic or distorted.
Ruminating (repeatedly thinking about negative thoughts or situations) can understandably lead to excessive worry and heightened feelings of anxiety. Breaking the cycle of rumination is essential and requires becoming more aware of when negative thoughts are prominent in one’s mind.
Sometimes, simply thinking or saying “STOP” can help an individual recognize what they are doing and help them abort negative thinking. Other times, it may be necessary to replace negative or catastrophic thoughts with more neutral or even positive thoughts (e.g., replacing “We’re ALL going to get sick” with “While many people may get sick, most of us will be ok and there are things we can do to decrease our chances of getting sick”).
Another effective strategy is to replace “What if’s” (unlimited hypothetical possibilities) with “What is” (known or verifiable facts). Reminding one’s self that “What if’s” are speculative (“What if I lose my job”) or “made-up” (“I’m going to lose my job”) and are therefore endless can increase our ability to recognize the futility of this consuming tendency and help us to limit it.
When our systems are in a perpetual state of arousal due to chronic stress, our bodies send messages to our brains that trigger our “fight or flight” reaction. This elevated arousal can lead our bodies to become tight and tense and our breathing to become shallow. This can lead us to become anxious and focused on negative thinking that fuels fear and worries.
One of the simplest and most-effective techniques for combating this state of hyperarousal and any accompanying anxiety or panic is to utilize deep breathing techniques. The best breathing strategies utilize deep, slow inhales and equally slow exhales. Adding visualization to the deep breaths can further increase its usefulness. Specifically, visualize your breath coming into the body and then imagine it working its way slowly through the lungs, down the hip, into the leg, past the knee and finally touching the tip of the big toe. Then, use your imagination to continue to visualize the breath as it slowly works its way out in reverse and is exhaled from the body. This technique not only allows you to breathe more slowly and deeply (proven to decrease arousal, increase relaxation and allow much needed oxygen to enter the body), but also engages your brain in an active mindful process which distracts it from any accompany thoughts of worry or fear.
Meditation, visualization and mindfulness are all techniques that allow us to exercise our brains in ways that offer us a “healthy escape” from our problems, worries or fears. Utilizing these methods can take time to learn and develop, but through patient practice can help us learn to control our thoughts (and subsequently our emotions) in ways that efficiently and effectively override negative self-talk and pessismistic, distorted thinking.
One easy technique to use anytime you need to calm your mind, body and/or emotions, is to “paint a picture in your mind.” Simply think of an image that conjures up joy, peace or comfort (e.g., walking on the beach) and then “paint” the image in your mind using each sense to enhance the experience while imagining what you might see, hear, smell, taste, and/or feel. Make the image as realistic and vibrant as you can. Using this technique with accompanying deep breathing (see above) can instantly and easily induce a state of relaxation.
There are also many useful apps available that can help individuals learn and practice mindfulness and mediation by guiding them through the process. Many such apps are currently offering FREE trials. Simply google “mediation” or “mindfulness” apps or search in your App Store.
While social distancing can have a powerful and positive impact on decreasing the spread of the virus, social isolation can lead many to feel lonely, sad and depressed. Interacting with other human beings in supportive ways can have a significant impact on one’s sense of connection, serve as a positive distraction and decrease feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Utilizing digital technology has never been easier and allows us to maintain virtual connections with one another while minimizing “live” interactions. Make sure to schedule connection throughout the day and week in ways that are predicable, just as you would schedule dinner with friends, a visit with the grandparents or a book club gathering.
Adolescents have perfected the art of engaging virtually with one another through platforms such as Facetime and various group chat apps, but remember to schedule virtual visits for your younger children who may being feel the deleterious effects of limited social interactions with friends. Through virtual playdates (or even virtual sleepovers), they can continue to benefit from the positive feelings that connection creates. Having these “social engagements” to look forward to not only creates a sense of normalcy and positivity about the future, but also creates opportunities for an ever-important dose of social support.